I’ve been following Jack Marshall’s Ethics Alarms blog for a few months now. He does a good job of discussing ethical issues in the news, but he also has some rather distasteful attitudes about immigration.
In the past, I’ve been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because his ethical opinion, however wrong-headed I believed it to be, conformed more or less to U.S. law. Marshall can’t really advise his business clients to break the law, so it made sense that he would take the law as a given, and try to build his ethical framework around it.
Yesterday, however, Marshall proved me wrong about taking the law as given, by discussing the ethics of a bill before Congress:
In the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress, Democrats are going to push for passage of the Dream Act, the poison pill Sen. Harry Reid cynically attached to legislation that would have resulted in ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” right before the November elections. The G.O.P. blocked the provision, which was really just Harry’s (successful) effort to stave off defeat in his re-election bid by pandering to the Hispanic vote. The fact that he ensured the perpetuation of DADT with his gambit was, as they say, collateral damage.
The Dream Act, however, should have been defeated, and it should be defeated again. Its most recent Senate version was called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. In the House, it was called the American Dream Act. The versions provided essentially the same path to citizenship for, as the bills euphemistically put it, “certain long-term residents who entered the United States as children.”
The Dream Act would give illegal residents a path to citizenship if their illegal entry into the country occurred when they were children, providing they have lived here at least five years, and providing they either go to college or serve in the military, as long as they stay out of trouble and off public assistance. Basically, it would show a bit of compassion to people whose violation of immigration laws was involuntary, and who would otherwise be deported to a country they may not even remember.
Amazingly, Jack Marshall thinks that’s being too nice:
What’s wrong with this plan? Simple: it rewards law-breaking illegal immigrants by providing a tangible benefit to their offspring. It also encourages deception by the parents, who benefit by doing everything in their power to keep their children in the country for five years.
Illegal immigrants–and that’s what the children of illegal immigrants are–should not be going to public schools. They should not be going to college. They should not be in the country so as to have an opportunity to join the military.
There’s a great ethical principle for you: Punish the children for their parents’ bad acts as a way of discouraging the parents from committing bad acts.
Perhaps we could do this for other crimes? After all, aren’t the children of thieves and robbers benefitting from the proceeds of their parents’ crimes? Maybe they should be prohibited from attending public schools or receiving welfare benefits. And maybe children should not be eligible for child support payments from a non-custodial parent if the custodial parent was at fault in the divorce, because we wouldn’t want to reward spouses who dishonor their marriage.
Or maybe this just isn’t a very good ethical principle.
The reflex Democratic argument, intellectually dishonest and shamelessly manipulative, is that to deny the “dream” is to cruelly punish innocent children for their parent’s acts. All children, however, must endure the consequences of their parent’s bad decisions.
Here Marshall is the one being intellectually dishonest. He’s talking about deportation as if it was some kind of natural phenomenon. The only natural consequence to children if their parents bring them to the United States illegally is that they are end up living in the United States.
Deportation, on the other hand, is something that the federal government does to them by force. Marshall is essentially arguing that it’s okay to force some children to leave the country they’ve grown up in because we have a policy saying it’s okay to force some children to leave the country they’ve grown up in.
It is in no way “punishing” children to make them return to the life, country and opportunities they would have experienced if their parents hadn’t chosen to “jump ahead in line” and enter the country illegally.
These children have a life here, and now you want to take them away from it, against their will and the will of their parents. Of course that’s punishment. If it weren’t punishment, you wouldn’t have to force them.
Jack Marshall doesn’t even believe his own argument, as he revealed earlier when he said that we should deport illegal immigrants who had been brought here as children so as not to reward the parents for their illegal acts. Now he’s saying that deporting these children is not a punishment. Well, which is it? If it’s not a punishment, how could it possibly discourage the parents? The only thing I can think of is that Marshall wants us to believe that letting them stay is a reward, but making them leave is not a punishment. It doesn’t get much more intellectually dishonest than that.
I fully support immigration reform, including a path for current illegals to legitimize their presence here and stricter measures to keep new illegals out. The Dream Act creates a permanent ongoing endorsement of illegal immigration as parental benefit, and that is intolerable, destructive, and wrong.
So it’s okay to let the current illegal immigrants stay, but no more ever again? Good luck making that work.
Marshall reveals a little more of his ethical thinking in the comments, where someone named Ethics Bob calls him out:
My heart tells me no, and I think my mind does, too. I don’t see how you can argue that it’s not punishing, say, a 16-yr old whose parents brought him to the US illegally when he was-3? to deport him to a place he’s never known.
The sins of the parents shouldn’t be visited on the innocent children. Didn’t somebody worthy say that?
To which Marshall replies:
My mind and heart, if given a choice between no consequence to the child and a penalty, would choose the former. It would choose no consequence to the child over a benefit, too. But there isn’t a neutral choice. A society that endorses a familial benefit to lawbreaking is cutting its own throat. Between the two available options, the only fair and rational choice is to refuse the benefit, which means a default penalty.
(Note that Marshall is now calling it a “penalty,” thus further undermining his earlier statement that it’s not a punishment, unless he’s playing some really silly word games.)
Even if you believe that illegal immigration is as terrible as Marshall does, his argument here only holds water if the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is magically effective. Otherwise, the choice is not between letting them stay or deporting them. The choice is between letting them stay or deporting a few of them while the rest stay in hiding as part of a vast illegal underground that is poor, lawless, and suffering. That has never worked out well.
And then later, Marshall comments:
It is unjust–we don’t agree. But having a law and simultaneously rewarding parents for breaking it is worse. This an ethics conflict, for sure.
These kinds of conflicts arise all the time in law. There’s a lot to be said for not letting people benefit from bad acts because it encourages them, but that doesn’t mean we should pursue retribution forever. Sooner or later, everyone is better off if we give up, get over it, and move on to better things.
When people get so far in debt they can never pay it off, we don’t say “tough luck, you got yourself into that mess, now you’ve got to live with it forever.” Instead, we let them declare bankruptcy. Their creditors don’t get back the money they deserve, but the were never going to get that money anyway. And once bankrupt people get out from under that crushing debt, they have a reason to become productive members of society again. Yes, this option gives people an incentive to borrow and spend recklessly, but it also gives them a way out of a bad situation, so they can begin contributing to the economy again.
More to the point, almost every legal remedy or punishment comes with a time limit. Fail to pay a debt, and after a few years your creditors can no longer sue you to recover it. Breach a contract, and after a certain amount of time you can no longer be sued to enforce it. Injure someone in a car accident, and if they don’t sue for damages within the time limit, you’re free and clear. You can even commit a crime–except for murder and a few other heinous crimes–and when the statute of limitations runs out, you get away with it forever.
These limits exist to serve a number of purposes, but one of them is to give people the peace of mind they need perform as useful members of society. We all do bad things from time to time–especially when we’re young–but our legal system recognizes that there is little to be gained by holding it over our heads forever. So if you smoked some pot, or drove away from a minor car accident, or lied on a loan application, or ran out on a restaurant bill, you don’t have to worry about it forever.
Imagine the alternative: You’ve survived to reach middle age. You have a job, you’re raising a family, you’re a homeowner, a church-goer, and a member of the Rotary club. Then one day the police show up at your door with a warrant to arrest you for assault and battery on a guy you punched in the face at a rock concert twenty-five years ago when you were a 19 year old kid.
That may be justice, but it’s very bad social policy. And it’s pretty much the life of any illegal immigrant, who could be deported at any time. At least with the Dream act, they won’t face deportation for things they did as children.